Just like much of America, my heart is broken this week with the events of last Sunday where a man opened fire inside a house of worship, killing 26 people and injuring 27 others, at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring, TX. From the earliest reports of the tragedy, many of our hearts and minds quickly started to attempt to figure out what happened and why. I am convinced we want to know, “why,” in order to make plans to avoid such situations in our own futures. To know why something happened helps us to feel a modicum of control, that we might be able to predict, and therefore protect ourselves and our loved ones, from future violent events.
In our diagnosing of the latest horror of gun violence in our nation, I am saddened and concerned about the quick conclusions of some to blame the gunman’s mental health issues as the defining reason why for his horrific behavior. The reason I worry about this conclusion is that I am afraid it will continue to demonize and stigmatize our friends and neighbors who struggle with mental illness. It will paint a picture that is just plain wrong, and we will make decisions and laws about public health and safety based on these wrong conclusions.
As we learned from Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund and Angela Whitenhill at last month’s PRO2017 Day of Sharpening, people with diagnosed mental illness are ten times more likely to be the VICTIMS of violence, than be the perpetrators of violence. They are in need of health care and protection.
We also learned that “they” are “us.” What I mean is, mental illness is much more common than any of us like to admit. As reported by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services in 2014, one in five American adults have experienced a mental health issue. One in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. And suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. It accounts for the loss of more than 41,000 American lives each year, more than double the number of lives lost to homicide.
So, I worry. People I am very close to and love very much are managing their mental illnesses today with the help of doctors, medications, therapists, pastors, and friends. I assume you have friends and family doing the same, given the statistics reported above. So, I worry that in our profound grief and fear in the aftermath of the horror in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX, we will draw quick, and wrong, conclusions. I worry that our friends and family with mental illness will be further stigmatized, isolated, and feared. I worry that we will focus energy and resources into prisons instead of clinics and hospitals. I worry that we will again throw our hands up and declare it impossible to create sensible gun legislation that protects our rights to LIFE, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And when I worry, I pray.
My prayers are joining all of yours. Seeking the way that Jesus would lead us. The way that chooses life over death. May we be guided by Christ to love our neighbors and friends in ways that reveal the depths of love and compassion available through him.
Blessings for the journey,